Check against delivery.

Thank you, Tom, and good afternoon everyone.

We have now administered more than 107,400 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

And more than 17,000 Albertans have now been fully immunized with two doses.

Over the last 24 hours, we have identified 268 new cases of COVID-19, and completed about 7,900 tests.  

Our positivity rate currently stands at about 3.5%.

Looking to schools, there are currently active alerts or outbreaks in 305 schools, or about 16% of schools in the province.

These schools have a combined total of 726 cases.

Currently, there are 556 people in hospital, including 97 admitted to the ICU.

Unfortunately, 13 new deaths were reported to Alberta Health in the last 24 hours.

These are thirteen people between the ages of 27 and 93 whose loss leaves a hole in the lives of those who cared about them.

This is a challenging time, and my thoughts are with anyone who is grieving the death of a family member, friend or colleague.  

Thankfully, our cases, deaths and hospitalizations are continuing to trend down.

This is encouraging, but at the same time we must remain vigilant.

In particular, we are actively monitoring for cases of the variants of concern first identified in the UK and South Africa, as well as all other emerging strains.

These variants are new, but the public health response is not.

We actively conduct contact tracing to ensure that anyone at risk of exposure to these variants is isolated and tested.

In cases involving variants, we are being extra cautious to reduce the chance of infection spreading widely into the community.

Alberta Health Services has formed a dedicated variant contact tracing team with experienced investigators to ensure that a prompt and enhanced investigation happens each time a variant of concern is identified.

As I mentioned yesterday, our lab has enhanced their capacity to be able to screen 300 samples a day for these variants and to run full genetic sequencing on 400 samples a week.

They are also continuing to work to expand this capacity.

And in the meantime, the lower our overall case count, the greater the proportion of positive tests we are able to screen.

As of this morning, we have found a total of 50 cases of the variant identified first in the UK and 7 cases of the variant first identified in South Africa, bringing us to a total of 57 variants of concern.

The vast majority of these cases – all 7 of the variants first identified in South Africa and 36 of the cases of variants first identified in the UK – are in returning travelers.

An additional 6 cases have been detected in close contacts of returning travelers.

However, 8 of the 57 cases that we’ve detected in 5 different households, have no links to travel yet identified.

This is an increase of two from yesterday.

Investigations are underway to determine the source of these cases.

But at the moment, what we have identified is a link between four of these cases to a daycare outbreak.

This link was just identified today, and work is underway to notify parents and staff of this facility that the outbreak at this location may be at least partially caused by a variant strain.

This is concerning, but it does mean that we have a better chance of controlling spread when we understand the linkages between cases.

In addition, as I mentioned earlier, as part of our public health investigations in cases in returning travelers, we have identified some spread of COVID within those households.  

In two Calgary Zone schools, this household spread has unfortunately led to children of returning travellers attending school while those students were determined to have been infectious. 

Three classes from these two schools are now isolating as a result.

It is important to remember that cases are assessed as infectious in the two days before their symptom onset, or two days before a positive test if they did not have symptoms.

The families involved in these situations did not intentionally break any rules, and should not be blamed or shamed.

With these school exposures, the affected class and any staff who have been involved with the potentially infectious student case were already being treated as close contacts when the original student’s COVID test came back positive.

This means they had already been asked to quarantine when the COVID diagnosis was first made in the student.

Once the samples subsequently tested positive for a variant of concern, health care teams began contacting all those who may have been potentially exposed.

The importance of strict quarantine is being emphasized in these phone calls,

And these contacts are being asked to be tested twice for COVID-19 to reduce any potential for further onward transmission.

We are analyzing these cases, and emerging evidence closely. There is no evidence right now that there has been any spread of the variant at these schools.

One of the themes we are seeing in Alberta, and one that has been reported in other places, is that it can be more difficult to effectively quarantine or isolate away from other household members with variant strains of COVID.

In order to reduce the risk of transmission from household contacts, we are ensuring that any new cases or contacts linked to variants of concern are aware of hotel isolation and quarantine options.

If cases choose to stay home during their isolation period, their household contacts will now need to stay at home as well in quarantine until 14 days have passed from the end of the case’s isolation period, or a total of 24 days.

Given how easily this variant is spreading in homes, this enhancement is necessary to prevent spread in the community.

There is a lot of talk about variants right now, and I understand that any new cases can generate anxiety.

I know that some people are also feeling information overload as they try to understand what all of this means.

The main reason we are concerned about these variants is that they spread more easily from person to person, which is why we must be cautious.

These variants spread in the same way as the strain that is currently dominant in Alberta, just more efficiently.

They are still spread by being in close contact with an infected person,

And the same types of preventive strategies will still be effective when rigorously followed. 

This includes the measures in place to limit transmission within schools, which remain vital to helping prevent the spread within classrooms.

With 57 cases of variants detected, I know that some may be wondering why we have detected so many.

This is thanks to both the excellent work of our lab to expand variant testing quickly, and to the border pilot program, which has detected 28 of our variant cases.

Outside of the border pilot, individuals who return from travelling internationally are required to quarantine in their homes when they come back into Alberta, or anywhere else in Canada.

But they would not usually be tested unless they showed COVID symptoms and sought testing out for themselves. This means that typically only a small proportion of returning travellers are tested after arrival.

Under the border pilot, since November, we have been able to test almost 45,000 returning travellers as soon as they arrived.

The positive cases identified from this testing have included many who were not showing any symptoms.

We have also been able to retrospectively test all positive cases identified in the border pilot for variants of concern, which has resulted in the total case increases that we’ve seen over the past week from these historical samples.

This has been a vital tool as we are working to stop this virus from spreading quickly within our communities.

Without this pilot program, our variant case numbers would be lower – but the variants would likely be spreading more widely in our province without us knowing about it.

The key to limiting variant transmission is to actively test for them, quarantine anyone who may have been exposed and break the chains of transmission before they have a chance to spread.

We are working hard, but these variants are yet another reminder that we are not out of the woods yet.

The potential for rising cases, including the spread of variants, is one of the things we will be watching closely for in the days ahead.

New case trends and positivity rates will help determine if we need to pause further actions, or potentially increase restrictions, in the future.

We can all help limit variants by limiting community transmission.

That is, and always will be, crucial to our fight against COVID-19.

We are all protecting each other and helping to keep each other safe every day.

Thank you and I am happy to take questions.